Thought piece: putting back what we’ve taken from the world’s forests

© Edward Parker / WWF

Let’s put back some of what we have taken from the world’s forests

An independent thought piece brought to you by Colin Chapman (a Professor at George Washington University) and Claire Hemingway (a Program Officer at the National Science Foundation).

Most people are acutely aware that large swaths of forests across the globe no longer exist. Human need and greed to cut down forests was a topic of great popular concern in the 1970s. While interest in the issue declined, deforestation did not. In fact, each year the amount of land deforested in the tropics has grown, even as it became progressively harder to find unlogged forests.

Media attention is now refocusing on forests: their role in climate change and their vulnerability. The cutting and burning of forests are a significant source of carbon dioxide contributing to climate change. Thus, calls to stop widespread forest destruction and to actively plant trees to sequester carbon are mounting. Adding to this are the recent horrifying images of the Amazon forest burning and the global outcry to fight these fires.

Action must be taken, but what action?

Restoration represents a holistic conservation strategy that has largely not been appreciated for what it can provide. Thus, restoration needs to be reconceptualised so that it can provide a roadmap for future research, management, community involvement, and policy development.

At the most basic level, forest regeneration is tree planting or facilitating natural succession by protecting it from human-caused damage. However, restoration should deliver much more, as the regeneration of plant communities will encourage the recovery of fungi and animal communities, so restoration efforts should aim to promote endangered species recovery. Restored forests should also be designed to promote required ecosystem services such as watershed protection or carbon sequestration.

Restoration projects of the scale needed are labor-intensive, requiring many people to engage in activities such as seedling planting or maintaining fire lanes. They also require the cooperation of the local community not to overharvest the new trees for fuelwood or overhunt the animals from populations that the project is trying to restore. Having local community members participate in project design and hiring them to provide the needed labor could engender positive attitudes towards the project. This not only provides an economic incentive, but it should be designed to foster an ideology that Aldo Leopold would appreciate involving a love for nature. This is critical, as it is the community’s relationship with the restored forest that will determine the success after any externally funded project ends. Shifting to a holistic, integrated concept of restoration offers the greatest promise and benefits.

The time is right for a serious investment in such restoration efforts at the appropriate scale.

Vast amounts of forest are being lost, leading to species endangerment and a ground swelling of new projects that require clear planning and coordination of goals. The situation in China illustrates the need for significant restoration efforts. China lost a forested area larger than New Guinea, Borneo, and Madagascar combined in the last two millennia. This has resulted in precipitous declines in primate numbers and many populations restricted to small forest remnants. Now, approximately 70% of China’s primate species have fewer than 3,000 individuals. These species will not survive if their forest habitat is not restored.

Massive urbanisation leading to relatively unoccupied rural lands creates extensive new opportunities for restoration. The year 2008 marked a first for humankind with more people living in cities than in rural settings. Looking towards 2030, projections suggest that 90% of the world’s population growth will occur in cities of the developing world.

There is a current groundswell of small-scale efforts in rebuilding forests around the world. The many “boots on the ground” means that we are poised to scale up holistic restoration with the right funding and coordination. For example, school children and community groups in southern Mexico are creating forest corridors for wildlife movement. In the Qinling Mountains of central China, students are reforesting former logging roads. In Kibale National Park, Uganda, FACE for the Future is hiring hundreds of locals to plant native trees in degraded agriculture lands. Long-term monitoring shows population increases of threatened species in these areas. The World Bank, Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and other major players are now convinced restoration is important. Networking institutions like the Global Partnership on Forest and Landscape Restoration are in place to coordinate efforts.

Restoration efforts must be scaled up to realize the potential of these opportunities and, to do this, restoration must be holistic and integrative rather than simply viewed as the planting of trees or facilitating natural succession.  Instead, it should involve managing landscapes with sincere local community involvement to promote biodiverse communities, coupled with a chance to develop policies that work across local, national, and global scales, and to foster a deep appreciation of nature and its wonders.

The opinions expressed here are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. The content of this thought piece represents the author’s own views and does not necessarily represent the views of the Biodiversity Revisited initiative nor of any of its collaborating institutions.